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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Part 2: Mark Baumer Reflection: U.S. 90

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer (Part 2 in fact-- Part 1 is here). There's nothing graphic in this article, but it does reflect on the circumstances of his death as they relate to transportation policy in order to pursue ways to not have others meet the same fate. Talking about the death of someone we love is really hard, and for many people I imagine simply moving on and remembering Mark for the tremendous amount of life he brought will be more emotionally productive. I respect that, and so if you're that type of person, consider reading something else. I feel like because Mark died the way he did, and especially because he was such an intensely political person, that this is a good way for me to cope with my feelings as I move on from the experience.

I hope that what I write here brings greater meaning to the senseless death of a very good person. It's undertaken with that in mind.

One of the things I wanted to do when my friend Mark died was to grasp at what existed of him in the internet. It's a sad thing to do because in doing it you relive some of the feelings you have at losing a person, but you also get to relive what was alive about them. Mark left a tremendous breadth of work that I've only begun to explore. But part of that exploration led me to questions about why Mark had died in the first place. As it turns out, the plans for U.S. 90 conflict with deep things that Mark cared about: climate change, equity, and safety for people "walk down the middle of the road free from all the violence".

Looking through his videos, I found myself wanting to trace where he'd gone. In the last video, I followed along on Google Streetview. The places he highlighted were often places of little inherent interest to me other than that they'd been locations where my friend had been before he'd been killed: the Taco City, the Blue Dolphin Coin Shop, a weird "Bel Air" housing complex on the side of the road, a golf course where Mark taunted a man to "DO THE SPORTS!". We've all done this with people we care about as long as we've been able, but this strange instinct is empowered even more by the broad leeway given by modern technology.

A question that came up for me was whether something about this road led to Mark's death.

This is near where Mark was killed, according to media reports on the subject. It's kind of underwhelming as a place (of course, it's overwhelming in other ways, like in the way it reminds us of Mark). Somehow I expected something much more dangerous looking. By all means, the cars here are probably moving very fast, but there appears to be so much room. It gives you the impression that maybe you were wrong about judging the traffic engineering.
I combed further. One of the places that Mark mentioned was the Spiced Apple Farm, and when I went to look at that on the map, I came to this:

I kind of wondered what all these work trucks were doing, but I had an inkling based on past experience. I once did a bike ride from Philadelphia to Baltimore, and I remember one of the more magical parts of that ride being when I was on U.S. 301, a giant highway that oddly was placed on Maryland's bike map as a suitable route. 301 turned out to be a really nice place to ride, because at the time the DOT was widening it, and had put Jersey barriers up the whole length. The empty construction area, where no one was working at the time, became my protected bike lane. I recall the moment I knew I was in the South, when I came across my first Waffle House, as part of that leg of the journey. And so two-and-two clicked for me here. I wondered if maybe U.S. 90 was being widened. This grass shoulder that perhaps offered Mark the (unfortunately false) sense of security might have been preparations for making this road less safe.
This video seems not to always embed properly, so if it comes up as a blank space in the article, you can go here. It's a lot of thoughtful residents from a rural area of Florida trying to be part of their political process.

A number of residents bring up concerns about properties that they worry will be taken by eminent domain for this widening, which in Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties would take a four-lane highway and make it six lanes. The existing four-lane stroad has painted bike lanes, which is kind of an ugly joke.
U.S. 90 in Pensicola, in Escambia County.
A problem I bring up a lot in posts is the fact that the majority of American infrastructure spending is on expanding roads or creating completely new pieces of infrastructure, rather than replacing or repairing existing projects. The widening of existing roads actually worsens traffic and contributes a great deal to climate change. One of the things that is also apparent is that this model of engineering is never able to pay for itself and contributes to the poverty, degradation, and social dislocation of the poor that plagues many places across America. And yet this is a bipartisan problem: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse recently told me at his Nathan Bishop Middle School town hall that he intends to support increased funding for transportation, even as most of that is used for projects like this, not to repair potholes or upgrade transit and biking. Even Bernie Sanders is on the wrong side of this issue.

Of course, FDOT justifies its project with the same mystical language that many traffic engineers use. It promises additional traffic congestion, and declares boldly that the only way to get ahead of that congestion is with more building. This is done perhaps a bit more boldly in Florida than it is even done in Rhode Island:
Daily traffic on that portion of the highway ranges from about 30,000 to more than 43,000 vehicles, with the highest count between Avalon Boulevard and Glover Lane, totaling 43,400 vehicles. 
FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said those numbers are only expected to increase in the coming years, and the department has to begin planning to ensure U.S. 90 can handle the future traffic load.
Keep in mind that as ridiculous as any road widening is, the widening of a road that carries only 43,000 vehicles is especially ridiculous (the 6/10 Connector carries around 100,000 at its most busy section, while a highway in Seoul that carried 160,000 vehicles was removed entirely without any negative consequence. A RIDOT panel once justified not putting protected bike lanes on S. Main Street in Providence, a two-lane road, because they said removing one of the lanes would be too much for the 25,000 cars that use it, to give another example-- although traffic congestion is an exponential, rather than linear function, so neither 25,000 or 160,000 can be traced like a line to what 43,000 is.). U.S. 90 must be a busy road, but by no means one that needs six lanes. And adding lanes will increase demand to be there anyway. 

In any case, as I consider the idea of U.S. 90 being widened, questions come up for me. One of those questions is how we can be spending so much money without solving the problems we have. For instance, in my last piece, I focused attention on the fact that the person who killed Mark had many times had her license suspended, and many times been arrested for driving without a license, and yet no one apparently had any means of stopping her from having access to a car. When the most thoughtful opponents of car impoundment raise their voices, what they often talk about is the dislocation that can come of not having a car. What about the person who is too poor to pay their tickets, they ask? What about the person who loses their license (or is never allowed to have one) because of immigration status or racial profiling? These are justifiable questions. And yet, to look at the road where Mark walked his last steps, you see that it would be very doable to add a biking/walking path with a bump or a jersey barrier to keep the traffic from crossing into it. So much cheaper to do than adding a lane-mile of highway. If we spent a tiny fraction of what we're spending expanding our road liabilities, we could provide for last-resort methods of getting around that would be so nice, that many people who are allowed to drive would actively use them.

According to news reports out of Northwest Florida, some of the officials who pushed for the studies to expand U.S. 90 are facing ethics violations because they failed to disclose the fact that they financially benefited from the arrangement. Quoting an account about local officials Mack Thetford and Vernon Compton, who pushed for the U.S. 90 expansion:
"[Thetford] never disclosed that he owned and controlled property along and near the South route," Thompson's ethics complaint said. "The committee members to my knowledge never knew this either."  
The next day, the complaint states, Thetford, as a member of the Bicycle Pedestrian Committee, won committee support to request the TPO to consider advancing the South route to FDOT (my emphasis)
And you thought your Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission was ineffective.

We like to think that the reason things like this happen in the panhandle of Florida is because of some kind of cultural defect. We arrogantly assume that we are better. But Rhode Island does the same things, and RIDOT officials would probably get 19% erections thinking about the opportunities they'd have if we allowed them to do projects like this. Our entire Congressional delegation and Mayor Jorge Elorza endorsed a similarly stupid plan to expand I-95 near the Mall, just because it comes with some non-sense add-ons about a pedestrian bridge across the highway. To the extent that this happens more in other places, it isn't because of any defect of the people living there. It's because American traffic engineering is broken, and the funding schema we have at the federal and state level empowers that brokenness. 

The writer David Hembrow did a touching piece on the sheer number of animals killed on roads around the world (I'm having trouble finding the link, but if you see it, pass it on to me). Hembrow used the United States as an example, he said, not of how bad the U.S. was, but because our country happens to have available statistics on the matter. But one of the things that was most touching about the piece was the way that Hembrow emphasized that driving is itself an inherently dangerous act, against the nature of who we are and our ability to make tremendous errors. His writings, time and again, have emphasized to me that the only way to assure that others are safe is to promote a sane infrastructure policy. It is infrastructure again that is failing us in America.

I think Mark would want us to fight back. I'm not a religious person, and I don't know that any literal remnant of Mark exists in the sense of a soul, but I think one of the main purposes of life, since we all die, is to work to the point where we comfortably can pass the torch to the people who will come after us. Mark worked hard to create the groundwork for his torch-passing, and especially after re-reading an email he sent me talking with kindess and thoughtfulness about how to interact with people who harm other people with their cars, I felt like looking more closely at the situation he faced was a way to keep him alive. 


1 comment:

  1. Your research on the actions at the Bike Ped meeting for hwy 90 is incomplete. The advocates for narrow roads and an alternate route that does not destroy a walkable community are inaccurately presented here as pushing for widening - they are being persecuted in the local media and by former local officials for asking DOT to follow there legal obligations to ensure a pedestrian friendly alternative to a 6 lane road.

    See the outcome of the complaint http://www.ethics.state.fl.us/Documents/Ethics/PressReleases/Sept16pres.pdf?cp=2017629